Wednesday, January 10, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

UH seeks millions more to pay bills

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Staff Writer

University of Hawaii officials want an additional $31 million a year to replace old technology and implement a management plan for Mauna Kea, the mountaintop that is home to some of the world’s best telescopes as well the Hawaiian goddesses of snow and mist. But they also need the money for some more mundane responsibilities: The university can’t afford to pay its utility bills.

UH President Kenneth Mortimer and several UH officials made their first official trek to state officials yesterday in advance of the 2001 legislative session, meeting with the House Committee on Finance to outline the school system’s needs.

While the state has given UH plenty of money for construction during the past decade, hard economic times have meant the university’s operating budget has dwindled, leaving the school unable to keep up with the cost of even basic services. The state has given the university no additional financing, for example, to pay its new utility bills, which sometimes reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for some of the science buildings.

"What we’ve done is fund new facilities without funding their operations," Mortimer said. UH has been forced to take money away from its academic programs to pay for utilities, he said.

UH also has fallen behind in equipment replacement and in the technology in student computer labs, administrative offices and the communications network.

Also, a new cost for 2001 is the Mauna Kea science reserve management plan, a 20-year plan to restrict telescope development on the Big Island’s 13,796-foot mountain and keep scientists and visitors respectful of the summit, which Native Hawaiians regard as sacred.

Mortimer said he hopes the university’s budget will begin to recover from the recession of the 1990s, despite the backlog of needs.

"There’s a sense we have come through the fire and things are going to get better," Mortimer said. "Talk is more optimistic than in any other time in my years here."

Last year, the state gave UH a 2- percent budget increase. It was the first time in Mortimer’s tenure here that he didn’t have to deal with a cut in state money for the system’s operating budget.

A recent study showed that Hawaii has limped forward in higher education spending, growing just 22 percent in a decade — barely half the national average — at the same time university appropriations have skyrocketed with the economy in many parts of the nation. For UH, that has meant faculty positions left vacant and repairs left undone.

Hawaii ranked 45 among the states in increase in the amount of state tax money dedicated to higher education over 10 years, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University.

But 2001 may be a departure from the past decade.

Gov. Ben Cayetano has asked the Legislature for a 9.5 percent increase to the UH operating budget. That falls $6.5 million short of what the UH Board of Regents want, but university officials see the increase as a good sign. The governor’s budget also designates $237.5 million for capital improvement projects, including the building of a new $141 million medical school and $40 million for facilities improvements.

UH has a $167 million backlog in repairs and maintenance. Mortimer and the Board of Regents are asking for $20 million more each year to the capital improvements budget to chip away at the backlog, in addition to the extra $31 million for the operations budget.

The university’s proposed budget would bring financing for operations from $405 million to $435 million.

Still, the biggest priority for the university barely made it into yesterday’s discussion. The union representing UH faculty members has reached an impasse with the governor’s office over a pay raise for the faculty. It’s an issue that is out of Mortimer’s hands.

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